Posted on July 25th, 2012 6 comments
Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.
I love stories. I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history. Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level. I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter. Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA. Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean. Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees. Centropa’s goals include: connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking. I have heard this before. But Centropa is different. Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war. For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies. After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways. Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone. In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history. I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves. When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels. I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt. I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm. We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning. We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom. I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning. The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.
The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me. I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about. Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews. It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students. I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II. I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels. I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well. But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right. There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere. It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government. There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin. The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest. Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that. Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.
Posted on April 18th, 2012 5 comments
In the normal course of things, stuff happens, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff. Then it passes and we forget most of it. We remember what is meaningful, or useful, or hard to let go of. Those memories inform our actions, which in turn create new stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff.
But when something catastrophic happens, when the stuff is beyond words, imagination, or of a scope that cannot be imagined, this regular chain of stuff, remembering, forgetting and incorporating is disrupted.
Growing up in a family that was, as my mother now calls us, second hand Holocaust survivors, I lived with the effects of catastrophic disruption. No one in the family that went to the camps survived but many did escape. It was not easy, (you can learn about how my family was interned in United States at the Holocaust Museum) and it left long and lasting imprints. Hitler and the Holocaust were ever present and our extended family ever absent.
On my path to figuring out how to cope with this legacy, I became a Jewish historian. My initial goals were purely feminist, but when I settled on the study of German Jews, I had to confront my sense of disruption, memory and family history.
The focus of my graduate work was the period from 1848-1914. I looked at the rythms and flow of domestic life. As I read diaries, letters, and cookbooks, the mundane elements of daily life came to life. There were joys and frustrations, aspirations and limitations. It was stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff –normal stuff.
Somewhere in between the Anschlus and the liberations of 1945, my namesake, Razel Lowy Brody known as Rufi was murdered. My mother never knew her grandmother. Never got to experience her cooking, her drawing, her singing. She never had a chance to get annoyed with her grandmother, bored that she told the same old stories, or argue with her about the way she dressed. She missed out on all the stuff. She never got to remember, forget and incorporate the way one normally does in the ebb and flow of life.
It goes without saying that we can never forget the brutality of the Nazis and the callousness of the millions of bystanders. That is what Holocaust Remembrance day is for.
But if we only remember that, we are in danger of handing Hitler a posthumous victory. Reducing the memories of those who perished to their final helpless moments robs them of the complex legacies they would have passed on if the richness of their lives had been lived out in the proper order of things.
When the candles go out at the end of Holocaust Remembrance day, take some time to engage with the past. Learn about Jewish life in Greece, the complexities of ethic Jewish identity in Yugoslavia, or domesticity in Germany. Take some time to get to know the people who did not live to share their stuff.
Posted on August 10th, 2011 1 comment
Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.
36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.
In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.
I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.
With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.
The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.
I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.
I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.
To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice
A Woman’s Voice
In the beginning a whimper
Pounding of heart-steps
Whispers of open fists
Prayer notes in stone
Pounding of heart-steps
Chirps of morning songs
Prayer notes in stone
The language of angels
Chirps of morning songs
A girl stands at the threshold
Hears the language of angels
Her own music breaking
A girl-woman stands at the threshold
Chants the first words of Torah
Her own voice breaking
Into stones with burning names
When a woman chants the first words
She finds inside her own voice
Stones with burning names
A cry becomes a scream
She finds inside her own voice
A silence a sigh an exaltation
A cry becomes a scream
A song of abundance
A silence a sigh an exaltation
When a woman reaches the highest note
In her abundant song
Even the stones begin to tremble.
—Dina Elenbogen, March 2011
Posted on July 6th, 2011 3 comments
For Jews, German history casts a long shadow over modern Germany. It can be a challenge to know how to make sense of this legacy as we go about building a vision for the Jewish world. In recent years several groups of HUC-JIR students from across the programs and campuses, have traveled to Germany Up Close. This week, Andi Milens, Vice President at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs reflects on what she has learned from her experiences with the program. This January, a select group will initiate the first HUC-JIR alumni travel program with Germany Up Close. Applications for the program can be found by clicking on this link.
It’s amazing how something as mundane as a bus stop can change your whole perspective on something. I guess the fact that the bus stop was in the heart of Berlin rather than in Manhattan, where I live, might have made a difference.
It was October 2004, my first visit to Berlin, although not my first trip to Germany. I was a participant in a trip called Bridge of Understanding, a precursor to the Germany Close Up program. Walking rather absentmindedly down the street, out of the corner of my eye I caught the outside of a bus stop. I almost passed it up, but then I realized that it was an explanation of the role the building opposite the bus stop had played during the Third Reich. A few paragraphs into reading it, I realized that the explanation was entirely in English. That struck me as odd until it occurred to me to walk around to the inside of the bus stop. There was the same explanation, in German.
In that moment, I began to understand something about German society. They get it. They know how to do memory. They have accepted their history and figured out how to collectively remember and memorialize it. There wasn’t any German on the outside of the bus stop because Germans won’t stop to read it while they’re hurrying along their way. The German explanation is on the inside of the bus stop because that’s where Germans will read it.
This thoughtful addressing of both the past and the present struck me in sharp contrast to my visit to Poland two months prior. In all fairness, I met very few Poles on that trip. But based on observation and hearing only about Poles as victims of the Nazis with no acceptance of responsibility for their actions toward the Jews (and others), it made me appreciate all the more how far Germany has come.
There is any number of examples of how Germany does memory. Shortly after my 2004 visit, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial opened. Beyond the significance of its architecture and its location -in the heart of Berlin, steps from the Brandenburg Gate, is its name: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name is important and powerful, a constant reminder that the Jews of Europe were murdered by Hitler and the Nazis and all those who participated or stood idly by. A memorial to homosexual victims was opened in 2008, across from the Jewish memorial, in Berlin’s equivalent to Central Park. Brass plaques on Berlin street corners bear the names of the Jews from that street who were taken away (granted, a controversial installation). There is no hiding the past; reminders are everywhere and occupy the time and space of everyday life.
What struck me most, though, was our visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. From the outside, it looks like the old Reichstag – Gothic, imposing, and intimidating. Much of the building’s interior is made of plexiglass (or some other like material). As you look through a floor to ceiling window on a memorial to those who died trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, you understand the architect’s vision. The purpose of the architecture is to serve as a constant reminder of the importance of the transparency of democracy.
That’s a powerful thought. There are people who look at any German over a certain age and wonder what they were doing during the Holocaust. Now I look at that same person and consider that here is a person who understands what it’s like to live without democracy. I’m 41 years old, born in America. No matter how angry I am about our civil liberties that have been taken away since 9/11 or that are still denied to segments of our society, I have never known what it’s like to live without democracy.
In a small town outside Bad Arolsen, where the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains an archive of 50 million original Holocaust records, I visited a tiny Jewish cemetery that has been restored by volunteers. When they restored the low cemetery wall, they inserted plaques with the names of the Jews who were taken away. And they left empty spaces representing the absence the community feels. In the next town they’ve restored the synagogue, and schoolchildren visit as part of their curriculum. In the next town volunteers have turned a house into a museum remembering the Jews that were lost.
I learned a new piece of history when I was in Bad Arolsen: the week before Kristallnacht, the Nazis did a trial run to see what the reaction would be. If there was no huge outcry, they’d do it on a larger scale. So there was a pogrom in Bad Arolsen. And there was no outcry. Why not? Maybe the Germans didn’t care about their Jewish friends and neighbors; maybe they agreed with what the Nazis were doing. And yet again, maybe they were confused and terrified. Maybe they were afraid that if they raised an objection, their home, too, would be burned, or worse.
Our guide did not have a definitive answer. I think he wanted to believe the fear theory. Many in the American Jewish community, including those who chastised my parents for letting me travel to Germany when I was 17, would probably choose to believe that none of the Germans in Bad Arolsen objected to the pogrom. I don’t know the answer.
I have now been to Germany 4 times — to Berlin twice, to Frankfurt, Weimar and Dresden, and to a surprising number of small towns. I’ve been to Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. My experiences in Germany have shown me that as a society, Germany deals with its past. It isn’t easy; it is painful and sometimes overwhelming and unrelenting, perhaps to a fault. They deal in different ways, but they deal with it. We could all learn something from the German experience.
Most importantly, for me, is this. Germany makes me think. It makes me rethink my view of history. It makes me ask questions. It challenges me to form my own opinion, even if it’s not very popular in some circles. It makes me appreciate the choices individuals and societies wrestle with. It makes me think about the past and the present and the future. I have been forever changed by my experiences in Germany, none of them easy – and for that I am grateful.
Posted on June 27th, 2011 1 comment
Last year during the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills California, Rabbi Laura Geller paused during her sermon and asked those assembled to take out their cell phones. Contrary to expectations, she did not ask them to turn them off, instead she asked them to turn them on. The theme for the holy season at synagogue was, “What are you doing here?” Smart phones in hand, over a thousand people joined in the conversation with Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) moderating an online conversation that mirrored the lively live discussion led by Geller. The entire dynamic of the service changed. At best, a rabbi leading a traditional conversation from the bimah can hope to engage a handful of people, who may or may not stay on topic. Here everyone was involved and limited to 140 characters, people were considered and deliberate about what they shared.
At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.
In the Spring of 2010, Rabbi Oren Hayon (@rabbihayon) gathered a group of rabbis to retell the story of the Israelite experience in Egypt. Setting up accounts for Moses, Pharoh and many other biblical players, the story unfolded in Tweet the Exodus (@tweettheexodus) a narrative that had nearly 1,500 followers and received attention in the Wall Street Journal and on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Such a broadly collaborative and interactive retelling would be impossible to imagine in any other forum.
Traditionally Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover, but OurJewishCommunity.org uses Twitter to let see what that often elusive angel of old does throughout Passover. As Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) explains throughout the 8 days of the holiday, “We had him in various places, he would go on 8-9 cities a day and we would photo shop him in.” Instead of having the holiday fizzle out in malaise of matzah menu madness, this creative use of Twitter maintained the aspect of interactive anticipation that is meant to infuse the sedarim.
In this era of being overloaded with information, time and again, Jewish professionals cite Twitter as a means by which they can vet articles and information to help make sure we are getting to the material that we want to focus on. It was this element of Twitter that led me to propose the idea of tweeting the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia to the Jewish Women’s Archive (@jwaonline). The Encyclopedia, which is housed on their site is an incredible resource of exceptional and diverse content. Taking up the idea, JWA recruited about twenty people to choose an article a week during American Jewish Heritage month, to summarize it in 140 characters and link to the source. The project caught one quickly and soon large numbers of people were delving into Jewish history and sharing info on more than 200 articles. Not only did it bring in new readers and feedback to the JWA but it engendered conversation about serious Jewish history in a democratic non-hierarchical format.
Another one of the consistently reported upon benefits of Twitter is that it allows users to connect with others who you might never otherwise connect with. One such person for me is Reverand Naomi King (@RevNaomi) a skilled user of social media and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Writing on Patheos, a religion site, she explains how Twitter can be used for what she calls, “Digital Faith Formation.” Using a Twitter application called Tweetchat, she brings together experts with those interested in discussing “particular texts, or to speak to particular emotional, spiritual, or social issues.” By locating these conversations in the virtual world of Twitter, she is able to connect across location with a range of people that simply could never come together. As she explains, “Using a few free and inexpensive tools, people of faith also have a chance to live so openly that others who are seeking can actually find them.” What she is describing is that far too elusive ability to reach in Jewish parlance, “the unafilliated.”
The use of hastags (#s) is another element of Twitter that is allowing broad conversations to happen. The # symbol in front of a word in the Twitter system allows one to signal that a particular topic is being discussed and to add to a broader series of comments about this topic. A few years back for example JewishTweets (@JewishTweets) introduced #shabbatshalom. Now you don’t need to be on the streets of Jerusalem to feel as though everyone is in on the Shabbat spirit.
Hashtags allow more much more than list formation. They are a means to virtual participation. Were not at the Women’s Rabbinic Network? Missed out on a session at NATE? You can follow along by following the hashtag associated with the conference and seeing what people have to say. Recently, Collier Meyerson (@WoodyAllenNot) in the New York office of my organization, Be’chol Lashon, participated in a conference in that city. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I monitored the reaction to her presentation on Twitter. As people commented, I chatted with them, (@bechollashon) adding my thoughts. As an organization, we were able to use Twitter to augment and shape the perceptions that were created face to face.
In the days before Shavuot, a new tradition is emerging that uses the #Torah hashtag to create an international Torah study free for all. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz (@rebmark) keeps hoping that the concerted effort of Jews around the world to send out significant numbers of tweets with the #Torah tag connected will result in Torah trending, or rising to the top of the list of popular Twitter topics. So far it has not, but given the dispersion of Jews and the diversity of our approaches to Torah, this may be as close as we can hope to get to a recreation of the gathering at Sinai. Several of the conversations in which I participated as we “Tweet[ed] Torah to the Top” this year, were as profoundly meaningful as they were direct. And there is no other forum in which so people of such diverse backgrounds, in so many geographic locations, could ever get into serious Torah conversations.
18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold. Let me know what I’ve missed, and keep me posted on what develops.
Posted on May 4th, 2011 No comments
This week we observed Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Larry Bach shared this beautiful reflection with his community. The message is both timeless and timely. —- Ruth Abusch-Magder
The text is fairly well-known:“I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is verywell-known. It was this text, set to that tune, that Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.
I’ve been thinking about the text, and the melody, a great deal lately. I’ve been thinking about what it takes to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise. Would I have had the strength of faith to join that song? Would you?
I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is, most of all, about faith in myself. It is about the having faith in my own capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When I do those things…when any of us does those things…we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of
Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.
And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:
Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.
Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He is Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He is Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He is those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us. And so…
Ani Ma’amin – I believe. I believe. I believe.
Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.
B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is calledmashiach.
V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…
Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…
Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.
B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.
Posted on January 24th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.
Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?
Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.
A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.
Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.
But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.
Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?
I believe very strongly that we can and should.
Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break. Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.
Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.
Posted on June 10th, 2010 3 comments
This morning’s paper brought news of genetic similarities among Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds. Citing studies published in the prestigious journal Nature, the New York Times reported that “Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East share many genes inherited from the ancestral Jewish population that lived in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago, even though each community also carries genes from other sources — usually the country in which it lives.”
Pondering both the study and its results, I realized that I had several different responses to this story. On the one hand, I love the underlying vision of Jews as diverse on the outside but united on the inside. Such a study suggests that despite our differences when it comes to important issues such as whether to eat rice at Pessach, we may well share a common ancient origin. It undercuts claims of supremacy, often implied by power structures if not overtly claimed, in terms of being the true keepers of Torah.
But there is a darker set of questions that emerges from mixing Judaism and science in this way. The idea that one could trace Judaism in the body is not a new one. During the Inquisition in Spain, many Jews underwent forced conversions. Taken at face value, these conversions should have paved the way for the complete integration of these former Jews into Spanish society. Yet, in relating to these converts, Old Christians developed the system of Limpieza de sangre which defined people within society by the ancestral purity of their blood. Those with Jewish, or Muslim, blood were considered significantly inferior to those whose blood was pure and faced discrimination and retaliation as a result. One could leave the Jewish faith but not the Jewish body. In the 20th century, similar lines of reasoning were essential to Nazi eugenics. The body became the essential holder of Judaism. The destruction of Judaism meant the physical destruction of Jews and vice versa.
Even as we step away from this extreme precipice, there are lesser dangers raised by linking Judaism so closely with the body. Tying Judaism down to genetic markers raises the danger of essentializing Jewishness to the point of irrelevance. If Judaism can be measured by tags on DNA, what is the place of the learning of our sages, our historical and cultural experiences and our ritual behaviors in defining Judaism. As we continue to do battle with the Orthodox religious establishment in Israel about who is a Jew, the thought that one might be able to test for Jewishness, is truly frightening. The possibility of being able to identify “pure” of “real” Jews could be powerfully destructive. As Reform Jews, we are committed to the outreach and welcoming of all those who seek to join our community. We look not at the bodies but at the actions and faith of those who want to become Jews. Jews and Judaism cannot be reduced to genetic components without seriously compromising the complexity and texture that is our inheritance.
The idea that we are one people is a beautiful and romantic notion. It speaks to a vision of unity that is a compelling and important element of Jewish tradition and interconnection. But mapping that vision of unity onto bodies is highly problematic.
Posted on January 12th, 2010 2 comments
Ahead of next week’s celebration of Martin Luther King and his legacy, guest blogger Julia Philips Berger pushes us to reconsider how we think about and teach the history of civil rights. Julia has been working with the Jewish Women’s Archive to develop new approaches for teaching the history of civil rights. A graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Julia is an education consultant residing in Orlando, FL.
Today, when most Reform synagogues have a social action committee and when legal segregation is a thing of the past, it may be hard for us to understand how some American Jews could not support and participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Over the last seven months, as I’ve worked on a high school curriculum about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement for the Jewish Women’s Archive, I have been examining this issue and many others that highlight the complexities of Civil Rights history. Part of what I’ve learned is that only when we are fortunate enough to hold a position of power and privilege can we support the fights of others. While many Northern Jews felt safe enough and powerful enough to help African Americans in the South, many Southerners did not. Equally important is the fact that many Northern Jews felt differently when the Civil Rights Movement came to the North. In their own communities, Northern Jews did not always support bussing to integrate schools or Affirmative Action to help African Americans enter college and new business fields. These events were more immediate and more threatening to Northern Jews. The lives of American Jews in the 1950s and 1960s were complicated, so are our lives today. If we want our young people to feel connected to Judaism and continue our legacy of social justice, we need to share with them a more nuanced history that resonates with them, not a nostalgic picture of larger than life heroes who always do the right thing and make the right choices.
As Reform Jews, we are proud of our legacy of social justice. The many Jews who participated in the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement are an example of this. In addition to the general Jewish participation and the work of individual Reform activists, there was official Reform involvement in this social movement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who escaped Nazi Germany, gave a speech at the March on Washington. Members of the CCAR and NFTY participated in this March as well, under banners proclaiming their Jewish affiliation. These are the people and events that we generally point to at this time of year or in our religious school classes. But the history of Jewish participation during the Civil Rights Movement is much more complex. And that complexity has much to teach us.
While we are proud of the large percentage of white civil rights activists who were Jewish, the actual percentage of Jews who participated in the Civil Rights Movement is relatively small and the majority of these lived in the North. Many Southern Jews did not actively support the Civil Rights Movement. It was not that they didn’t believe that segregation was wrong, but that they knew that actively supporting desegregation could be dangerous. It could mean the loss of jobs or customers and clients that they could ill afford. It could mean having crosses burned on their front lawns or the bombing of their temples. Northern Jews would eventually leave the South. Southern Jews needed to live within the white Southern community, and they had done so for years by keeping a low profile. The Civil Rights Movement was not low profile, and the actions of Northern Jews reflected upon Southern Jews, exposing them to the wrath of Southern whites.
Tensions also developed between Southern Jews and some Jewish organizations. For example, in 1956, a congregation in Mississippi wrote to the President of the UAHC expressing its feelings that segregation was neither a religious issue nor a Jewish issue, and asked the UAHC not to make statements about segregation which might be understood by others as being the views of all Jews.
As I read these documents, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which explains that we need to fulfill our basic needs like food, housing, and safety before we can aspire to ideals such as tolerance. As Jews, we often think of our people, in more or less homogenous ways, despite our experience to the contrary. A number of years ago when I was a congregational educator, I learned about a child in my religious school who, upon seeing the temple food chest full of soups, pastas, cereals, etc., wanted to know if she could bring home some of the food for her family. Her classmates and teacher were aghast and reminded her that this was where we brought food for those less fortunate than us. As her mother later told me, they were in want and truly needed the food. Sometimes, we forget that not all American Jews are middle or upper middle class.
This month, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I hope we can have pride in the fact that our people could be found in the Civil Rights Movement. We should also feel gratitude that many of us today have the power and privilege to be able to help others, and the perception to remember that just as we don’t like it when non-Jews make simplistic statements that begin “all Jews…,” we too must remember that all Jews are not the same, and bring that varied tapestry into our teaching of the past.
[For more information about the JWA’s new Civil Rights Curriculum and their summer institute which will teach teachers how to use these materials, go to http://jwa.org/teach/profdev/institute10/ .]
Posted on December 15th, 2009 No comments
Hevrutah is at the core of our ability to study and learn; to opportunity to engage with another in looking into the meanings of texts and Torah in our lives. This week we hear from Rabbi Jason Rosenberg about his experiences using technology to improve his ongoing learning. Jason who was ordained from HUC-JIR NY in 2001, now lives in Tampa, FL, in 2007. He lives there with his wife, Hillary and children Benjamin and Talia.
Several years ago, one of my closest friends from Rabbinical School and I decided that we missed studying together, so we set up a weekly phone-chevruta – a chance to study some text together, even if it was only via the phone. The truth is, it worked surprisingly well. I say “surprisingly,” because a big part of chevruta study isn’t just the exchange of information, of course, but the encounter with the other person. And, even though some of that sense of connection was possible on the phone, it certainly wasn’t the same as sitting across from someone while we studied together. The sages teach that, when two people sit and study, the shechina dwells among them. They never made it clear if the shechina has a long-distance plan, though!
A few months ago, he and I made a change in our study, which has led to a big improvement – we’ve stopped using the phone, and we’ve started using Skype. For those of you who don’t know, Skype is an Internet-based, free service which lets you call other Skype users, including conference calls, and even do 1-on-1 video calling – all for free. If you’ve got a webcam and an Internet connection, then you can easily connect to friends and family, even if they’re thousands of miles away. The sound quality is (usually) much better than the phone, but it’s the video which really makes a difference.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved talking to my friend every week. But, seeing him is much better. We all make gestures when we talk – now we can see them! Our facial expressions, our body language – all of it (well, most of it) is once again part of our interaction. And so, our study, and our conversations are more natural, and more powerful. There have been a few times when we’ve been unable to use Skype (one of its biggest limitations is that the technology is not quite as reliable as the phones), and we’ve always noticed that something is missing when we default back to the phones.
So, what do our study sessions look like? Pretty simple, really. We always have a text that we’re working on – right now it’s Moshe Chaim Luzzato‘s Meshilat Yesharim [The text can be found online in Hebrew]. We usually start with a couple of minutes of checking in and schmoozing, and then just open up our books (we made sure we each had the same edition, so the page numbers line up), and take turns reading from where we left off last time. We never get very far – we always get caught up in some philosophical point, or some tangential discussion. But, eventually we’ll make it through. Do we ever get caught up in the chitchat, and forget to study at all? Of course! See – it really is just like it was in Rabbinical School!
So, with the standard disclaimer that I don’t work for Skype, nor do I get any payment or compensation for this, I heartily recommend that you go to www.skype.com and download the software. Find a friend or family member to do the same, and you’ll be amazed at how nice it can be to see someone whom you haven’t seen in a while. And, to even share a sacred moment of learning with them.
Editors’ note: Skype works well for phone calls with or without a video camera attached to the computer, however, if you want to video chat, you will need a video camera.